The Wrong Way To Save Your Life
Interviews: Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Fiction Advocate, Alive Magazine, HarperAcademic, New City, Barnes & Noble Review, Juncture.
"Stielstra is a masterful essayist."
—Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist and Hunger
“When Megan Stielstra writes you can actually feel her beautiful heart pumping blood through every sentence.”
—Samantha Irby, Meaty and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life
"Reading this book is like listening to stories from a wise, compassionate, and irrepressibly funny friend—one who allows her empathy to fill every unflinching tale about how fear both plagues and saves us. Whether she's writing about gun laws, a bear attack, or postpartum depression, Stielstra's clear voice calls for us to stay awake, and to pay attention."
—Esmé Weijun Wang, The Border of Paradise
"There are fires and guns and knives in these terrific essays, and heavy metal and bloody hearts on cutting boards, and Stielstra handles it all with humor and expert humanity."
—Eula Biss, On Immunity and Notes from No Man's Land
"Stielstra brings all her selves to the table and in doing so provides a crystalline haven of acceptance and safety to anyone—wife, mother, educator, lover, writer—who is both present in every moment and wondering how she arrived at any particular juncture in time. Stielstra has both questions and answers. Is my writing good enough? Am I loving and loved, loyal and worthy? The answers have been amassed over the years, but more questions crop up for every one that’s resolved. For its wisdom and compassion, honesty and courage, Stielstra’s stellar essay collection is a lifeline and a microscope, a means of examining the dread of whatever one finds daunting and a manner of exorcising demons through the sheer power of commitment and desire."
—Booklist, starred review
"A life-enriching collection of essays by a conscientious writer and teacher who knows that asking the right questions is more important than having all the answers... The author sounds like a marvelous teacher, and her collection offers plenty of teaching moments. In a style that is literary but never pedantic, Stielstra has crafted a collection that has such a sense of continuity that it could pass as a memoir."
—Kirkus, starred review
"I love knowing that my mom writes about me because it means she loves me. She probably writes about that, too. But I don't like it when she gets up so early in the morning to write. She needs to stay asleep so she's healthy. Also: there's no right or wrong way to save your life."
—my 9-year-old son, in the Chicago Reader cover story where they asked everyone I write about in the book to write about what it was like to be written about by me, including my dad, my best friends and colleagues, and my relator.
"It’s a beautiful book. I think books can make the world a better place, and I think Stielstra’s does."
"Stielstra at her best: wryly funny and brutally honest."
"For Stielstra, scrutinizing fear yields more than self-awareness—ideally, it leads to action. Significantly, she completed her book in the months before the 2016 presidential election, the results of which she describes as terrifying in their own right. 'I can be pissed as hell right now about taking birth control away from women, about the Muslim ban, about all the things happening in our country,' she says, 'but I’m interested in what happens to the fear when we start thinking more clearly about what we can actually do.'”
“A star of the Chicago story-telling scene, Stielstra internalizes her engagement with the live audience and translates it to the page with a voice that is personal and candid, yet neither nostalgic nor self-referential. In the four parts of this collection, each devoted to a decade of her life, Stielstra segues between quotidian concerns and harrowing ones, like what objects to grab as she and her son narrowly escape their burning apartment building.”
—National Book Review
"What I loved most about this book was how deeply I felt Stielstra’s own heart thumping on every page. She taught me that the opposite of fear isn’t courage. It’s kindness."
"The real heart of Stielstra’s project is the idea that while fear won’t save your life, we can certainly save each other, and maybe ourselves—and we can use words and books and vigorous, intentional listening to teach us how to do it."
"Art, Stielstra wants us to understand, can alter us, yet we must be open to the process, not only as observers but also as participants. 'It’s interesting,' she suggests, 'how hard it is to talk about privilege when, really, it’s responsibility. It’s overwhelming when you first discover systemic discrimination, systemic racism. There was so much I didn’t know. But in learning about it, it’s not possible not to be fundamentally changed.' Again, Stielstra cites her audience: 'I have to earn it,' she says of their trust. On the one hand, this refers to her roots in spoken word; she has been affiliated for many years with the Chicago storytelling collective 2nd Story and debuted many of her essays from a stage. More to the point, though, is that notion of conversation, of collaboration — literature as an endeavor shared by author and reader, the art of writing essays and the art of living."
—Barnes and Noble Review
“Warm, funny and occasionally furious. . . Stielstra maps essential questions about art and the self: questions about memory, assumption, love and fear. She is an evangelist for story’s power to transform lives."
"It’s opened up my thinking about the personal essay. [Stielstra] has a knack for taking her personal, intimate stories and broadening them outward to consider how she fits in this larger project of humanity we’re all engaged in. The book is genius."
—Amanda Fortini for Book Talk, KNPR
"Stielstra’s essays are so masterfully done, that after almost every one, I had to put the book down and take a breather, and reflect on what I’d just read."
"Megan taught me how to live, how to live hard, and how to feel everything as deeply as possible. Because that’s where the art comes from. That’s how you tell your stories. These are the final lines of F, one of my favorite essays in her most recent collection" There’s only me, on the edge of life. The whole world is spread out before me. God, what if."
—S. Makai Andrews, who I was lucky enough to work with at Interlochen, wrote about the book for the Odyssey at Ithaca College.
Once I Was Cool
Top Ten Books of 2014, Roxane Gay for Salon
Best Books of 2014, Chicago Magazine
2014 Favorites, Vol. 1 Brooklyn
2014 Favorites, Chicago Reader
2014 Notables, Chicago Tribune
2014 Best of Small Press, Newcity Magazine
Interviews: The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Zulkey, Interlochen Review, All Write Already, Seriously Badass Women, Converse-Station, The Longest Shortest Time, Hypertext, New City, Other People, Late Night Library, Truth and Fiction, Writer With Kids.
"Stielstra's Once I Was Cool isn't just edgy, funny, surprising, a ricochet of wow. It's practically actionable. The words reach out from the page. They direct us to look, to think, to ask."
—The Chicago Tribune
“Stielstra has a knack for giving voice to the kinds of thoughts and feelings we assume are deeply personal but, we slowly discover, are mostly universal… funny, heartfelt and refreshingly candid, inspiring readers to make peace with their own imperfections.”
—The Chicago Tribune
"This is Stielstra’s talent: her ability to create experiences. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen her perform her work live before, but every narrative seemed to pick itself up off the page and turn itself into a performance before my eyes. The numerous asides, amendments, and annotations, force the reader to see and hear her work, not just read it. Ekphrasis (visual description) at its best, there is no contemporary author more vivid in description that Megan Stielstra.”
“Stielstra’s prose reads like something your friend needs to tell you RIGHT NOW, before she even takes her coat off.”
—The Los Angeles Review of Books
“Stielstra’s collection of essays combines the things I love best in writing: humor, smarts, and extraordinary insights about being human. In more specific terms, Once I Was Cool is about adulthood, with essays ranging from running into an old lover while tripping, to managing postpartum depression via a baby monitor. The first essay in it, ‘Stop Reading and Listen, inspired me to put down the book, go to my computer, and message her a completely embarrassing anecdote about my unladylike behavior at a concert, which only goes to show 1) how she’s able to make such an amazing connection to the reader, and 2) that I’m a dorky fangirl and never had any cool to lose."
—Jennifer Niesslein at The Independent Review of Books
"In Chicagoan Megan Stielstra’s excellent new collection of essays, she dwells upon her life in a nostalgic way that is inspiring in that I don’t think she means to be inspiring at all. Life is simply a string of events that we experience as people. Megan Stielstra’s life has been a string of events that are relatable and human. And man, oh man, can she write."
—Milwaukee Public Library
“Stielstra finds the beating heart that hides beneath most moments of quotidian emptiness without sacrificing any bit of the biting reality in growing older, learning how to parent, and weathering the financial hardships of an artist’s life.”
“If there was anything more embarrassing than snort-laughing on the CTA while reading about Stielstra’s run-in with an ex-lover while on ecstasy, it was ugly-crying on the CTA at the end of an essay about trying to console a friend when she knows it’s impossible to help her friend stop hurting.”
“I felt like, for the first time, I had this window into the interiority of Shaelene’s mind during those early months after our baby was born. After reading ‘Channel B,’ after being moved by it emotionally, I felt like I could empathize with her. Story—when done well—grants us the power of empathy. I gave it to Shaelene to read. I know it would make a better story if I had been there when she read the essay, but this isn’t fiction, and I wasn’t. I was working. She also cried. More than once. She told me after: ‘That was me. Step by step. I was there. That was me.’”
—Scott Eagan for Literary Chicago
“In Once I Was Cool, Megan Stielstra is warm and open and wise. Whether she’s writing about the complex loneliness of early motherhood or failing to rise to the occasion or find the right language while living abroad, Stielstra is a masterful essayist. From the first page to the last, she demonstrates a graceful understanding of the power of storytelling. What she’s truly offering with her words, is the grandest of gifts.”
—Roxane Gay, An Untamed State and Bad Feminist
“What an amazing cri de coeur Once I Was Cool is. Megan Stielstra tells us in a witty, sympathetic, confident voice who she is and what and whom she cares about most. Reading these essays, I laughed out loud and also found myself on the verge of tears so many times. This book should be read by anyone who’s been in love, had a child or thought about having a child. So, probably, that’s everyone.”
—Christine Sneed, Little Known Facts
“Megan Stielstra’s wonderful writing and her storytelling bravery is truly a gift for everyone who reads her. Once I Was Cool is refreshing, hilarious, touching, and wise.”
—Kevin Sampsell, This is Between Us
Everyone Remain Calm
2011 Favorites, Chicago Tribune
Editor's Pick, Best New Chicago Books, CBS Chicago
Interviews: The Nervous Breakdown, Hypertext, Writing Under Pressure, Shareable, Writerhead, 2nd Story
“Stielstra writes beautifully and kinetically. Her work possesses a rare aural quality, no doubt the result of spending so much time onstage, or even in front of a classroom…. in Everyone Remain Calm, she gleefully tests the boundaries of the short-story form.”
—Time Out Chicago
“Those who know of Chicago author Megan Stielstra are probably more aware of her 2nd Story readings: amazing theatrical readings that are usually held at Webster’s Wine bar. Megan’s performances are intense, composed of a powerful cadence of speech and strong storytelling you won’t find anywhere else. Somehow she has bottled the presence of her performances and sprinkled a little bit on each story contained within Everyone Remain Calm.”
"Stories to help you sort fantasy from reality."
—The Chicago Tribune
“Daring and inventive... Many lines blur in this book, including those between fiction and personal essay and between the literal and the fantastic. Some stories appear to be memoir rather than fiction, based on cues that include mentions of Stielstra's husband by name and subject matter seemingly culled from her life history, such as the travails of a creative-writing instructor. Then again, one story that commences ostensibly as creative non-fiction ends with a fifty-person marching band that follows the author all the way from New Orleans to her Midwestern hometown."
"Here’s the thing about Megan Stielstra: she has a profound understanding of where we all go in our minds, and the unique ability to turn it into a story that sounds like your new best friend is telling it to you. You know, the kind where you’re going 'Oh my god that totally happened to me' or 'It’s like you see inside my head' until she gets to the part where there’s suddenly a marching band following her down the street or she’s sleeping with the Incredible Hulk or having a three-way which is the part where you go 'Okay that didn’t happen to me but damn, why does it still seem like it did?' Megan Stielstra brings it to the party and rocks it.”
—Elizabeth Crane, We Only Know So Much
“Everyone Remain Calm is a rarity: a bold, imaginative, and cunning collection of stories. Spanning a wide variety of styles, forms, and tones, the language here is unapologetically inventive and often humorous, while the sentiments are deeply heartfelt. Ms. Stielstra’s inimitable voice is a fiercely unique creation.”
—Joe Meno, The Great Perhaps
“Megan Stielstra’s voice is so palpable, so immediate and vibrantly alive, it feels as though she’s standing right in front of you, sashaying her hips a little and maybe occasionally breaking into song, making you laugh so hard you don’t quite notice when you start to cry. A trickster constantly unpacking and upending what is meant by 'fiction,' 'truth' and 'storytelling,' Stielstra has ultimately created a charming style wholly her own.”
—Gina Frangello, A Life in Men
“When you read Megan Stielstra’s stories, you’ll feel like the coolest, most interesting gal in the bar just pulled a seat up next to you—lucky you. She tells tales of dangerous women, broken women, explosive women, real and magical women, all of whom you’ll have a hell of a good time getting to know as you watch them get ready to take flight.”
—Claire Zulkey, An Off Year